PUBLISHED : Monday, 22 March, 2010, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 22 March, 2010, 12:00am

Mulberry connection

When people in the West first saw silk from China, they must have been amazed. Almost all material for clothing and bedding was made from linen or wool. It has a rough texture. Smooth and shiny silk was unlike any other material in the ancient world. And it had only one source - China.

Silk is made by silkworms. After the moth lays its eggs, they hatch as tiny caterpillars. The caterpillars munch on mulberry leaves until they are ready to start spinning a cocoon. A cocoon is the small silk home the caterpillar lives in while changing - or transforming - into a moth. In ancient times, mulberry trees grew only in China.

From the cocoon

To make silk, you need to get the moth out of its cocoon. In ancient China, silk makers dipped the cocoons in boiling water to kill the moths. A cocoon is spun from a single strand of silk about 1 kilometre long. That sounds like a lot. But to make one kilogram of silk, you need around 5,000-6,000 cocoons. A single kimono requires about 2,000 cocoons.

It's difficult to say when China began trading silk with the outside world. But silk found in a 3,000-year-old Egyptian mummy's hair tells us it started a long time ago. There was huge demand for Chinese silk. There was a series of trade routes to the Middle East and the Mediterranean. We call them the Silk Road today. In total they covered around 12,000 kilometres.

Fun facts

1 A female silk moth lays about 400 eggs at a time. After laying them, she dies almost straight away.

2 It takes as much force to tear silk as it does steel. It is the strongest natural fibre on earth.

3 For centuries, China kept everything about how it made silk secret. Anyone who gave the secret away faced death. But, around the year 600, two Christian priests smuggled two baby mulberry trees and some silkworms out of China. But China still makes 80 per cent of the world's silk.

4 In 1999, police in Thailand discovered silk was strong enough to stop a speeding bullet. The Thai police have developed a bulletproof jacket made from Thai silk. In ancient Asia, soldiers used silk to protect themselves from swords and arrows.

now do this

1 In ancient times, China was the only place with silk because ...

a. it kept the fabric a secret

b. it was the only place with mulberry trees

c. its technology was more advanced than the rest of the world

2 A silk cocoon has ... of silk

a. one strand

b. 100 strands

c. 1,000 strands

3 Today China produces around ... of the world's silk

a. 99 per cent

b. 70 per cent

c. 80 per cent


March 15

1. a, 2. b, 3. b